By Michael Goldstein
By Dennis Romero
By Sarah Fenske
By Matthew Mullins
By Patrick Range McDonald
By LA Weekly
By Dennis Romero
By Simone Wilson
A River Runs Through It
High atop the parking garage of the downtown Los Angeles County Jail, Lewis MacAdams leans precariously over a 4-foot-high guard wall and points to the Los Angeles River below. “Try to find the river on foot from here,” he says. “You can’t. It’s practically impossible.”
He’s right. Live railroad tracks line both of the river’s concrete banks, and barbed wire blocks access to the channel from almost all directions. Short of getting locked up in L.A. County Jail itself, this parking garage is pretty much the only place to get an unobstructed view of the downtown section of the Los Angeles River. And so we’re trespassing. MacAdams and I had snuck in, hoping his reputation and weathered, beyond-expired press credentials, would bail us out if need be.
Vision is a difficult thing to have if you can’t see, and MacAdams needs to show me something. He singles out a giant plot of land, cluttered with empty railcars, on the east bank of the river in Lincoln Heights, directly across from where we’re standing.
“That is the future of Los Angeles,” he assures me.
The “piggyback yard,” as MacAdams calls the plot, is an active Union Pacific–owned rail yard, covering more than 100 acres of prime centrally located real estate. Eight years ago, MacAdams led a team of students from the Harvard Graduate School of Design to conduct an ecological survey of the rail yards. Minutes after their arrival, however, police descended upon the group.
“I almost got everyone arrested,” MacAdams says, laughing.
The students were told to leave, but that didn’t stop them from completing their survey. With the help of their professor, George Hargreaves, architect of the yet-to-be-completed Cornfield park nearby, and Mia Lehrer, who organized the study, the students determined that, from a needs-based perspective, no other site along the Los Angeles River has as much potential for green space as the rail yard and its environs, which include a 2-acre pile of concrete aggregate. They devised an entire studio book of park designs for the area.
“Imagine a 100-acre park, this close to downtown Los Angeles,” MacAdams says. “This can be our Central Park.”
Part Olmstedian visionary, part Pickfordesque booster, MacAdams has been preaching the gospel of green space along the river since 1986, when he founded the celebrated advocacy group Friends of the Los Angeles River (FOLAR). After years of fruitless screaming from the outside, under the Villaraigosa administration, MacAdams’ ideas have finally found traction in City Hall — and efforts to green the Los Angeles River, once equated with lunacy, are now considered the city’s best hope for a greener future. On a 2006 tour of Asia, Villaraigosa was so impressed with the Seoul, Korea, government’s efforts to turn the Cheonggyecheon River into green space, he declared, “the Cheonggyecheon has shown that, ‘Yes, we can unpave paradise.’”
Villaraigosa’s we, however, is a wholly subjective term. Much like what the Olmsted brothers once faced in implementing their master vision for the city, plans to green the L.A. River are mired in jurisdictional quicksand. Though Los Angeles has taken the important step to commission and certify Lehrer’s exceptional master plan for the river, the city has no final say in whether much of it will actually be built. The people who can unpave paradise, the Army Corps of Engineers, have primary jurisdiction over flood-control efforts for most of the channel. Other sections of the channel are controlled by L.A. County, which can also unpave the river with consultation from the Corps.
In cases where alterations to the channel don’t affect flood control, jurisdictional responsibility is far murkier. Authority over the river’s “right of way,” the channel itself and the access roads that line much of its banks is divided among county officials, as well as the dozens of municipal governments that span the river from Canoga Park to Long Beach. That chaos hasn’t stopped individual politicians from attempting to impose their personal will on the river.* Earlier this year, County Supervisor Gloria Molina inexplicably ordered that a popular county-permitted mural be removed from the concrete walls of the confluence of the L.A. River and the Arroyo Seco. She then sent the bill for the whitewash to the mural’s backers, FOLAR and a team of internationally renowned graffiti artists led by L.A.’s own Man One. The confluence has returned to being a barren, concrete wasteland. Why? Because Molina said so.
In short, the Los Angeles River is a jurisdictional Wild West, with a trigger-happy posse enforcing its own private law at every street corner. Despite the endorsement of the City Council, the centerpiece of Los Angeles’ green future is still an amorphous dream — one that could be fully realized, radically altered by petty political infighting, ignored because of flood-control concerns or pushed aside amid the city’s perennial budget woes.
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